Sunday 1 November 2015

Book Review: The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak

I loved Elif Shafak's novel Honour, an illuminating and moving story of a traditional Kurdish family that begins to fragment when exposed to the freedoms and pressures of modern, multi-cultural society. Set in the recent 20th Century past, it combines an examination of the construct of masculinity with the timeless quality of a fable; something which is again apparent in Shafak's most recent, historical novel published in English, The Architect's Apprentice.

Istanbul in the 16th Century is a city seething with life and colour; the centre of an Ottoman empire full of exotic sights, sounds and smells. It is inhabited by a multitude of races; rich and poor, weak and strong - above all, it is full of enterprise. Home to Sinan, the Sultan's Master Architect, builder of palaces and mosques, in The Architect's Apprentice it is also a place where Jahan, apprentice to Sinan, mahout to the Sultan's elephant, makes his way in the world.

As a boy, Jahan arrives in Istanbul by boat. A stranger to the land, we see it through his eyes:
He peered ahead at the line where the water lapped against the shore, a strip of grey, and could not make out whether he was sailing towards Istanbul or away from it. The longer he stared, the more the land seemed like an extension of the sea, a molten town perched on the tip of the waves, swaying, dizzying, ever-changing. This, more or less, was his earliest impression of Istanbul, and unbeknown to him, it would not change even after a lifetime. 
Although an imposter, initially posing as the mahout of Chota, the Sultan's white elephant, Jahan has a rare empathy for the beast and rises steadily through the ranks of the court. He catches the eye of the Sultan's daughter Mihrimah and develops an attachment that can never be fulfilled. Before the heat of battle, he meets Sinan and, helping him to construct a bridge for the Sultan's army to cross a river, is offered the rare chance to become one of the Master Architect's four apprentices, if only he can accept the need to work hard and make a fresh start:
' must let go of the past,' said Sinan as he stood up. 'Resentment is a cage, talent is a captured bird. Break the cage, let the bird take off and soar high. Architecture is a mirror that reflects the harmony and balance in the universe. If you do not foster these qualities in your heart, you cannot build'
As Jahan grows in stature and wisdom through recognising the value of knowledge, his new situation brings many enemies as well as friends. Sinan's buildings are raised but occasionally fall again, new Sultans accede to the title of The Shadow of God on Earth, bring both prosperity and war before themselves being succeeded. And, all the time, intrigue piles upon intrigue in a thrilling, absorbing but seemingly episodic fashion which Shafak nevertheless draws together with great skill at the close.

This is such a richly woven tale of multiple layers and textures, a heady blend of historical fact, blurred timelines and fiction. Detractors of women writers, who accuse them of concentrating on the domestic and the 'small' (not that this is in any way a crime in my eyes), take note; this is a novel of dizzying intensity and huge ambition. Above all, it is an unblinkered love letter to Istanbul; in Shafak's hands the city takes on a vital life force of it own and Sinan's legacy is described with tender detail by an author (the most read female novelist in Turkey) unafraid to recount its dazzling beauty, but also its many human imperfections.

The Architect's Apprentice is published in the UK in paperback by Penguin Books.

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